Luke 2:1-7 tells us of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. We meet up with Joseph and Mary again following her visit to see Elizabeth and the focus in chapter 1 turning to the birth of John. Now they must go to Bethlehem and register for tax purposes. Whilst there, Mary gives birth, the baby is laid in a manger.
Despite all of the tradition that has built up, there is nothing to suggest that they turn up late at night knocking on doors as Mary is about to give birth. Nor, is there mention of a stable. The word translated “inn” in some versions is perhaps better rendered “guest room”. The purpose of going to Bethlehem was not some idle Roman interest in Jewish lineage but rather the practicalities of making sure that taxation was collected.
As a number of bloggers and preachers have pointed out, it is more likely that Luke is describing a typical middle eastern house where the animals would have shared quarters with humans but in the cases of slightly better off people including some guest quarters. That part off the house is already occupied and so we find Mary and Joseph in with the family in the main house. There in the middle of family life, with all its joys and sorrows, in the middle of the frustrating ordinariness of sorting out the taxes, Jesus is born and laid in a manger right in the middle of life.
Now, this may cause problems for some of our carols and our application. How often has the Gospel appeal gone out “there was no room in the inn but will you make room in your heart.” Yet there is a better gospel here. Just as Jesus was right at the middle of family life in Bethlehem, so in him, God placed himself at the centre of life and of history.
Nobody puts the baby in a corner
In the same way, that is where Jesus is found today. He belongs right at the centre of everything and that is so important for how we approach Christmas. Many of us will come into the season this year with heartache, pain and worry. Is Christmas meant to be a time when we put those things aside and try and forget about them? Does the Gospel mean that we have to try and forget the bad stuff? No, Christ and Christmas are there for us right in the middle of grief and suffering helping us to make sense of them. At the same time, Christ is in the midst of our joy and our celebration. The idea of Christmas as this horrendous secular feast misses the point that feasting, and happiness, joy, dancing, family, friends and presents are all good things. It is okay to celebrate.
Enjoy Christmas and enjoy Emmanuel, God with us, right at the centre of it all.